Uncertainty Is Not Our Achilles Heel

Uncertainty Is Not Our Achilles Heel

Much of the industry-funded opposition to climate change has been aimed at downplaying accumulating scientific evidence and refocusing the public on a polarized debate about whether one “believes.” Policy makers and the public are essentially forced to position themselves as believers or “deniers” with both opponents and proponents of climate policy pointing to science to justify their position. The opponents point to scientific uncertainties in order to give the impression that this is a hazy theory and forestall any policy action. And proponents of a policy response play down scientific uncertainty, highlighting the strong consensus around the fact that human-caused climate change is occurring now. I have long been an advocate of immediate action to mitigate climate change, but I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice by minimizing uncertainty virtually to the point of denying it.  While there is strong consensus that human-caused climate change is occurring now and will get worse, there is still remaining uncertainty about how bad things will get.

Uncertainty is not necessarily a weakness, nor is it a barrier to action. It is important information when we shape our policy response. Our understanding of the climate system and future impacts is evolving. As much as we all wish it were otherwise, much of the recent science indicates that we may have significantly underestimated climate sensitivity. Additionally, a number of the climate models upon which policymakers rely assume that there will be some rational reduction of carbon emissions and adoption of clean energy technologies in the first part of the 21st century.  Real energy policy in the U.S. is thus far not consistent with those assumptions and that has implications for the projections those models create. After all, it is these same models that governments (including the U.S.) are currently relying upon to fashion adaptation strategies.

Ironically, one of the biggest factors causing uncertainty about climate change impacts is the open question of whether we take reasonable action to limit emissions. Reliable restrictions on future emissions will greatly reduce uncertainty. That is something we should be talking about, not hiding from. 

Uncertainty exists, and by denying it we create the appearance of dishonest expediency as new information comes out which refines our understanding. If proponents of mitigating climate change had embraced uncertainty prior to ‘Climategate’ it would not have been possible for the opposition to foster such a sense of doubt and betrayal. 

While that battle is in the past, there is still an opportunity to unmask uncertainty for the red herring it is when it comes to preventing policy action. Opponents say that uncertainty should prevent decision-makers from acting on climate change. This ignores the fact that we are better able to project the future when it comes to climate change than we are with job creation, successful regulation of our financial institutions, anticipation of Al Qaeda’s future plans, or predictions about the trajectory of China’s blue-water naval capacity. Taking action in the face of uncertainty is essentially what policymakers do every day and our government spends trillions on issues far more uncertain than climate change. 

A job change a few years ago showed me that there are additional political advantages to reframing our position to embrace uncertainties. For two years I worked with E3G to convene conversations around approaching climate change as a risk management problem. By its very nature, risk management is about responsible action in the face of uncertainty. In all of our materials framing the workshops and in reports coming out of them, we embraced the fact that there are remaining uncertainties about how climate change will play out. After all, uncertainty doesn’t mean we know nothing…simply that we don’t know exactly what the future will hold. Once one admits there is uncertainty, then a risk management approach requires a thorough examination of the scientific evidence in order to craft a strategic response. We had no doubt that a thorough examination of the evidence would make a strong case for mitigation and adaptation action now. What did surprise us was the enthusiastic response we received from a number of self-identified ‘moderate-to-conservative’ policymakers and USG officials who indicated they had wanted to engage in the climate policy debate but were repelled by having to align themselves completely with ‘deniers’ or with ‘the green groups’. They appreciated that an approach based on risk, uncertainty and evaluating the actual scientific evidence allowed them to come into the conversation without having to take sides, and helped them defend their responses to their constituents.

Katherine Silverthorne is a climate security consultant